While Native American heritage infuses the south-western US, modern-day tribal reservations are not necessarily front of mind for companies considering locating in the sun-drenched region. But the special status of these reservations presents some unique advantages. One option is the Ak-Chin Indian Community’s industrial park, Santa Cruz Commerce Center. The Ak-Chin Indian Community, located in southern Arizona’s agricultural heartland, is nestled into the Santa Cruz Valley about 93 kilometres south of Phoenix in the north-western part of Pinal County.

The industrial park comprises approximately 53 hectares, of which about 18 are immediately available. There are also two off-reservation properties adjacent to the Santa Cruz Commerce Center that encompass 265 hectares and are currently owned 'fee-simple' (i.e. permanently and absolutely) by Ak-Chin. An application for 'fee-to-trust' (a transfer of the land title from an eligible Native American tribe or individual to the US in trust for the benefit of the tribe or individual) has been filed with the federal government to expand the existing reservation boundaries to include both of these parcels.

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What makes locating on a Native American reservation different than non-tribal lands is that each reservation has its own governance structure, and sets its own tax policies and development process. 

“Locating on an Indian reservation is like locating in another country,” says Robin Reynolds, a spokesperson for the Santa Cruz Commerce Center/Ak-Chin Industrial Park Board.

A easy sell 

The Ak-Chin has other qualities that make it stand out. “For example, on some reservations, a four-hectare parcel might have more than 150 allottees who can have a say on how that parcel is developed,” says Ms Reynolds. “This can delay the development process... At Ak-Chin, there is no allotted land; the reservation is held in trust as a whole and the council determines the best use for the land for its people.”

As land on Indian reservations cannot be bought or sold, all development has an underlying land lease. Helping that process is legislation passed in 2012 called the Helping Expedite and Advance Responsible Tribal Home Ownership Act that enables Ak-Chin to break away from the often cumbersome and time-consuming process of securing the US Department of the Interior's Bureau of Indian Affairs's (BIA's) approval on land lease deals involving  tribal property. 

“This saves time, cost and promotes self-sufficiency,” says Ms Reynolds. “With more control over the whole leasing process, tribes such as Ak-Chin can do what they want and not have to run back to the BIA every time they want to change something in a lease.”

Qualified lessees can enter into a build-to-suit project where construction costs are rolled into a long-term lease. These arrangements eliminate the initial outlay and Ak-Chin acts as the bank. No outside financing is needed. Another incentive of locating in the Ak-Chin industrial park is there are no property taxes payable. 

A wide target 

Ak-Chin is targeting a range of industries to invest in its industrial park. Given that the location is largely an agricultural community, many are related to this sector, but the park also includes companies from construction and repair services, and business related to the health industry, commercial and industrial machinery, and aviation-related services, due to the location’s close proximity to the Ak-Chin Regional Airport.

When it comes to workers, given that Ak-Chin is a relatively small tribe in comparison to other tribes in Arizona, most of the labour force comes from off-reservation sources.